Recent paths in nineteenth-century history: diversity and modernity of a historiographic field1

Conceição Meireles Pereira2


This study focuses on a set of ninety-six doctoral theses related to Modern History-nineteenth-century carried out in Portuguese universities between 2010 and 2018 and aims to analyze their distribution among the referred schools and doctoral programs, their main scientific focus and studied geographical spaces, evidencing the occurrence of these variants over the nine years under study in order to check for patterns or trends in this field.


PhD theses; Portuguese universities; Nineteenth-century history; Scientific focus


Este estudo debruça-se sobre um conjunto de noventa e seis teses de doutoramento relativas à História do século XIX realizadas em universidades portuguesas entre 2010 e 2018 e pretende analisar a sua distribuição pelas referidas escolas e programas doutorais, as suas principais áreas temáticas e espaços geográficos estudados, evidenciando ainda a ocorrência destas variantes pelos nove anos em estudo com o objetivo de verificar se há modelos ou tendências neste domínio.


Teses de doutoramento; Universidades portuguesas; História do século 19; Áreas temáticas

The following analysis examines the doctoral theses produced in the field of “Modern History: Nineteenth-Century”-one of the eight categories established for the classification of 825 PhD theses in the general scientific area of History presented at Portuguese universities during the last nine years (2010-2018). This group consists of ninety-six doctoral theses, which represents just under 12% of the total. Evidently, during the period considered here, the twentieth century and the present day attracted greater interest on the part of researchers in Portugal than the century of Liberalism.

However, some initial considerations should be made regarding this category and its temporal designation. Some of the theses included in this group actually span broader periods than the nineteenth century, since they begin in previous centuries and/or extend into the next one, not only continuing as far as the period of the Great War (which, in Anglo-Saxon historiography, usually marks the beginning of the twentieth century), but even, and obviously in very rare cases, extending into the second half of this century. There is, in fact, a great chronological and temporal diversity to be noted, since, among this group of studies, we can find theses adopting longitudinal and diachronic approaches spanning several centuries, while others opted, instead, for synchronic analyses, sometimes covering just a very short period of time, ranging from less than half a dozen years to little over a decade. While the chronologies of some theses are a little fuzzy, focusing, for instance (as their own titles indicate), on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most theses (about 80%) have the nineteenth century as their essential core and actually indicate the chronology of their study as being between two dates, although the time gap can be very variable. A few theses begin their chronological analysis before the nineteenth century (around 13%), some select periods of time exclusively within the nineteenth century (nearly 33%), while the majority expand their research into the twentieth century (54%).

As far as their geographical distribution (Fig. 1) is concerned, most theses were produced at universities in Lisbon, which is not surprising since the largest number of such schools are, in fact, located in the capital-Universidade de Lisboa (School of Arts and Humanities, Institute of Education, Institute of Social Sciences, Faculty of Sciences, Faculty of Law); Universidade Nova de Lisboa (School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Faculty of Sciences and Technology); ISCTE-IUL (School of Sociology and Public Policy); Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Faculty of Human Sciences); Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa (Department of History, Arts and Humanities)-accounting for a total of forty-nine PhD theses, i.e. just over half of the texts under consideration.

Fig 1: Geographical distribution of universities (2010-2018)

The city of Porto comes in second place, with theses being completed, as was the case in Lisbon, at both public and private universities, although with only very few in the latter case-Universidade do Porto (Faculty of Arts and Humanities); Universidade Portucalense (Department of Tourism Heritage and Culture); Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Institute of Health Sciences; School of Arts)-accounting for eighteen theses, which represents almost 19% of the total.

Coimbra follows Porto very closely, with sixteen theses, all produced within the institutional framework of the Universidade de Coimbra (Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Faculty of Sciences and Technology, Institute for Interdisciplinary Research), accounting for nearly 17% of all cases under scrutiny.

Lower numbers were produced in the city of Évora (Institute for Advanced Studies and Research of the Universidade de Évora) with seven theses, the archipelago of the Azores (School of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universidade dos Açores) with three theses (all about Azorean themes), Minho, in the northwest of Portugal (Institute of Social Sciences of the Universidade do Minho) with two theses, and finally the northeast area of the country, Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (through the School of Human and Social Sciences of the Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro) with just one. The theses produced at the universities mentioned in this paragraph account for just over 13% of the total.

One aspect of particular interest for this analysis was the number of PhD theses carried out at different universities throughout that period.

A first glance at Fig. 2 reveals that a substantial number of schools/universities developed only a few PhD theses in Modern History (nineteenth-century) during 2010-2018: in fact, fifteen of the twenty-one institutions produced four or fewer. On the other hand, in 2018, theses were presented at only three institutions: three theses at both the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade de Coimbra and the School of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade de Lisboa, and two at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. In the previous year, the Universidade de Coimbra also had three theses, while the other two had one each. Incidentally, these three institutions show the highest level of production: the first and the third with thirteen theses each, and the second with twelve. Completing the top five institutions in terms of the number of theses produced are the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade do Porto, in fourth place (eleven theses), and the Institute for Advanced Studies and Research of the Universidade de Évora and the Institute of Education of the Universidade de Lisboa, in equal fifth place, with seven PhD theses each.

Fig 2: Number of theses per school/university per year (2010-2018)

It should be stressed that it is not only schools of social and human sciences that appear on this list, as some PhD theses were developed at schools of law, as well as schools of science and technology, namely the Institute of Social Sciences, the Faculty of Sciences and the Faculty of Law (all at the Universidade de Lisboa), and the Faculties of Sciences and Technology of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and of the Universidade de Coimbra, and also at the Institute of Health Sciences of the Universidade Católica Portuguesa, a situation that necessarily had repercussions at the thematic level, with emphasis on the History of Legal Thought and, more often, the History of Science, as will be shown.

It should also be borne in mind that, although a substantial number of schools/universities sponsored PhD research in this specific category (Modern History, nineteenth-century), none of these twenty-one institutions achieved particularly high annual production levels, as Fig. 3 clearly shows. In fact, only three schools produced four completed theses in a single year: the School of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, in 2010; the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade do Porto, in 2012; and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade de Lisboa in 2016.

Fig 3: Distribution of the number of theses per school/university (2010-2018)

Fig 4: Number of theses per PhD program per year (2010-2018)

Also worth noting is the fact that the ninety-six PhD theses were undertaken under a broad range of doctoral programs, many of which were characterized by crossovers with other disciplines, irrespective of whether they were based on chronological or thematic criteria and often assuming similar, if not equal, names, whose generalist nature should be emphasized. Despite the different organization of the PhD programs, it was possible to develop most themes under the scope of many of these programs. There were obviously exceptions to this situation, namely those PhD programs that had a more theoretical and methodologically circumscribed object of study, such as Legal History and Historical Demography, or scientific areas that deviated from the restricted domain of the social sciences and humanities, such as Physics, Geology or Nursing. Nevertheless, the theses that were produced in the latter cases bore clear similarities, in thematic terms, with the theses produced under such programs as the History and Philosophy of Science or the History, Philosophy and Heritage of Science and Technology, and even with other generalist programs. Correspondingly, although there are PhD programs exclusively devoted to Education (Education: History of Education, or Education Sciences: History of Education), it is clear that several theses on this theme were undertaken under the broader scope of PhD History programs.

Indeed, although there are twenty PhD programs, the reality is nevertheless more complicated, as some of their names may be found in more than one institution, albeit with quite different programs, even though, as has already been underlined, they may convey similar contents. The PhD program named “History”, for instance, can be found in five universities-Universidade do Porto, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Universidade Portucalense, Universidade de Évora, and Universidade Autónoma-which, not surprisingly, accounts for the highest number of theses (twenty-three). Contemporary History is a branch of that same PhD program at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and the Universidade do Minho, but it is also the designation of the PhD programs in force at the Universidade de Évora and the Universidade dos Açores. The same university can have different PhD programs, and there is one with specific characteristics-PIUDHist-since it is an inter-university doctoral degree program in History resulting from a partnership between five Portuguese university institutions, the Faculty of Human Sciences of the Universidade Católica Portuguesa, the Institute of Social Sciences and the School of Arts and Humanities (both of the Universidade de Lisboa), ISCTE-IUL and the Universidade de Évora. Although this program was created in 2008-2009 and restructured in 2013-2014, continuing to receive the FCT’s PhD approval until 2017-2018, as far as can be seen from this analysis, only four theses were undertaken under its scope (three at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Universidade de Lisboa and one at the Faculty of Human Sciences of the Universidade Católica Portuguesa). Greater success seems to have been achieved under the PhD program entitled History: Modern and Contemporary History, which was taught at both the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra and the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon, giving rise to a total of seventeen theses. It is quite likely that, within this vast assortment of doctoral programs, we may find several cases in which only one single thesis has been completed. This is particularly true for more specific PhD programs, which are naturally more restrictive from the thematic point of view.

Thus, the difficulty in assessing the topics of doctoral programs is proved, although this clearly calls for another kind of approach, since it requires the creation of subjective categories of analysis, namely determining the main scientific focus of the different theses. To perform this exercise, we must seek to establish the prevailing areas of scientific research, in order to ascertain which were the preferred subjects during the period under review, despite the thematic crossovers that many of the theses appear to express (Fig. 5). There is no doubt that historical studies are increasingly tending to include transversal analysis, which makes it very difficult to identify and select thematic categories for certain theses. Consequently, there was nothing to be gained by avoiding traditional denominations, even though these may now be considered to be somewhat outdated.

Fig 5: Number of theses per main scientific focus (2010-2018)

According to the categories that were chosen, Political History recorded the most completed theses (nineteen), most of which dealt with questions relating to Liberalism (Brazilian independence; political parties, ministries, parliament and the king’s powers; biographies of politicians), but also with republicanism and Portugal’s relations with other countries. Moreover, there is an affinity between Political History and the History of Legal Thought (four theses), and also Local History (four theses), in which the municipal and political strands are invariably present.

Cultural History (in some cases, closer to the History of Ideas) comes next, with sixteen theses, addressing such diverse topics as books, libraries and reading, private life, the humorous press, national identity, memoirs and historical representations, anticlericalism versus secularism, ethnicity, the idea of decadence, or orientalism.

In an area where there is less dispersal in terms of themes, twelve theses can be grouped together under the category of Economic and Social History, where we find such subjects as mutualism and capitalism, work and housing, industrial labor, the port system, viticulture, violence and marginality, the history of social assistance, and Portuguese emigration/immigration in Brazil (this theme was studied in three theses).

History of Education and History of Science are fairly well represented (twelve and eleven theses, respectively) demonstrating the continued appeal of the former area and the consolidation of the latter in terms of historical interest in our universities. Furthermore, there seems to have been a link between History of Education and History of Science, since several theses chose science teaching as their object of research. As far as the field of History of Science is concerned, emphasis should be placed on the variety of studies: physics and chemistry, mathematics and seismology, psychiatry and statistics, among others. In connection with public health and medicine, History of Nursing gave rise to two PhD theses.

Colonial History was inevitably included in this set of historical studies of the nineteenth century, with eight theses focusing on different subjects, ranging from missionary politics to slavery and witchcraft, from forced labor to issues concerning indigenous identity/resistance and integration/miscegenation, and from railway infrastructure to the collective colonial imaginary.

Women’s History was the choice for four theses that examined issues relating to women writers, suffrage and antifeminism, Military History was only responsible for two theses, while Demography and the History of Religions were represented by one thesis each, revealing an evident decline in what were once widespread research areas.

As far as the geographical scope of the different theses in concerned (Fig. 6), due to the mainly national character of the research themes, Portugal as a whole was, not surprisingly, the area most studied, with a score of almost 45%.

Fig 6: Number of theses per geographical scope (2010-2018)

As for the Portuguese regions studied, the north was clearly the most popular (Porto, the urban and rural spaces of Entre Douro e Minho, and Chaves-over 16%). The central region was represented only by Castelo Branco, while the south of the country (Lisbon, Alentejo and the Algarve) represented around 9%, not forgetting the Azores with 4%. The Portuguese colonial empire was analyzed in 6% of the theses, with the same percentage covering Portugal and other countries, and there was one case whose geographical scope was the Iberian Peninsula. Brazil was the only foreign country that appeared by itself in this graph, with nine theses, and there was yet another thesis whose research focused on three European countries.

In view of what has been said about the PhD theses undertaken between 2010 and 2018, it can be concluded that there are no obvious trends or patterns. The same can be said about the main scientific scope of the research that was undertaken, although it is possible to identify certain specific focuses of interest (Fig. 7).

Fig 7: Number of theses per main scientific focus per year (2010-2018)

The most sought-after areas naturally remained fairly constant over the years (for instance, Political History was only not represented in 2015), although some areas were mainly concentrated in the first half of the period (History of Legal Thought and Local History) and one-History of Education-declined in popularity in the last three years.

On the other hand, as Fig. 8 shows (even though the universe in question is relatively small-there were about 10 theses per year on average-and thus always subject to distortion), the most widely represented thematic areas in the latter part of the reporting period, besides Political History, were Cultural and Colonial History, as well as History of Science. This result would seemingly tend to corroborate a current trend, which is also to be noted at an international level.

Fig 8: Distribution of number of theses per main scientific focus (2010-2018)

Our analysis underlines the vitality of historical studies of the nineteenth century, a time period that continues to exert great scientific interest and to stimulate academic research in Portugal from a variety of different approaches and using renewed methodologies. Indeed, the richness of these contributions reflects the innovation of the paths followed in recent years under a new paradigm of history, one that is less dependent on causal explanation, less quantitative and more narrative, including an increasing dialogue with the other sciences, making it possible to anticipate a further reinforcement of this dynamic in search of the supreme goal of History: understanding the past.


Please see the (Accompanying Annex)




Baiôa, Manuel; Fernandes; Paulo Jorge; Meneses, Filipe Ribeiro de, “The Political History of Nineteenth Century Portugal”, e-JPH, Vol. 1, number 1, Summer 2003: 1-13.

Cannadine, David (ed.) (2002), What is History Now? Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Santos, Rui (2003), “The Internationalization of Portuguese Historiography: Basic Data and Educated Guesses”, e-JPH, Vol. 1, number 2, Winter 2003: 1-12.

Torgal, Luís Reis; Mendes, José Amado; Catroga, Fernando (1998), História da História em Portugal, Séculos XIX-XX, 2 vols. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores.




1 With an accompanying annex prepared by the editors of e-JPH with the assistance of Elsa Lorga Vila (Graduate of University of Evora; Master’s Degree in History-Nova University of Lisbon).
2 University of Porto. Faculty of Arts, Porto, Portugal. E-Mail: [email protected]



Received for publication: 9 September 2019
Accepted in revised form: 20 October 2019
Recebido para publicação: 9 de Setembro de 2019
Aceite após revisão: 20 de Outubro de 2019

Copyright 2020, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol. 17, number 2, December 2019




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